The salons of Paris
Updated: Dec 6, 2019
BY ROBERT WEINBERG
The first European novel that was set against the episode of the Báb was published in France 1891. In Un Amour au Pays de Mages, A. de Saint-Quentin—a French consular official and colleague of Gobineau’s—created a love story between a humble dervish and the daughter of a cleric in Qazvín played out amid the events of Bábí history.
Writer Jules Bois had also been so moved by the story of events in faraway Iran that, during a journey through the Holy Land, he had stopped at Mount Carmel to place flowers on the tomb of the Báb. Writing in 1925, Bois recalled that, All Europe was stirred to pity and indignation over the martyrdom of the Báb, July 9 1850 … among the littérateurs of my generation, in the Paris of 1890 the martyrdom of the Báb was still as fresh a topic as had been the first news of his death. We wrote poems about him. Sarah Bernhardt entreated Catulle Mendès for a play on the theme of this historic tragedy …. I was asked to write a drama entitled Her Highness the Pure, dealing with the story of another illustrious martyr of the same cause—a woman, Quarratul-Ayn [sic] the Persian Joan of Arc and the leader of emancipation for women of the Orient.
Neither of the proposed plays of Mendès or Bois materialized. However, Bois did meet ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Paris on 11 November 1911, at the home of composer Hermann Bemberg, where they performed extracts from an opera they had co-written with Eustache de Lorey, titled Leïlah. Set in Shíráz, the opera contained many references to mystical Persia. It was staged in Monaco three years later.
In 1910, the Paris-based American heiress Laura Clifford Barney—who would be active in the International Council of Women in the following decades and its representative to the League of Nations—had published her own, never performed, drama, God’s Heroes, centering on Táhirih. In its preface, Barney described her play as but a fragment of one of the most dramatic periods in history and … but a limited presentation of the most vast philosophy yet known to man.
The theatre, like all other forces may upbuild or shatter. It can be a mighty instrument for spread ideas broadcast; and, for this reason, I believe that the wave of regeneration, which is sweeping over the world, should take form also on the stage; and am trying, therefore, in this play, to bring before the public some of the most inspiring events of our epoch. I have, therefore, presented to the public a few episodes in the early Babi history, and only a few of the noted characters of that period: yet, even this imperfect sketch should suffice to give an idea of the vastness of the movement. - Laura Clifford Barney
Barney thought it preferable not to portray the Báb or Bahá’u’lláh in any way for certain beings cannot be adequately impersonated. However there is no such self-restriction in her depiction of Táhirih, who stands forth in history as an example what the disciple of truth can accomplish despite hampering custom, and violent persecution.
At one moment in the play, Barney gives to Táhirih words that proclaim the advent of a new Revelation:
From all sides I see new life rising; the struggle between the hardened soil and the maturing seed is over. Soon, upon all things, summer will spread victorious beauty! … even the end has a beginning for spring will again conquer, sister mine. So, when, as now, ancient faiths have become rigid in cold dead forms, a new faith germinates in the souls of men.
By then a devoted Bahá’í herself, Barney’s intention in presenting this history on stage was made clear to her readers at the outset: … I hope, notwithstanding, to give you a glimpse of Eastern glory, and to awaken your interest in this great movement, the universal religion—Bahaism, which is today bringing peace and hope to expectant humanity.
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